Background: Joe and Jack are brothers. Joe marries Miriam but dies before having any children. Torah law states that Jack should now marry Miriam.

This practice is known as yibum, or levirate marriage. It is not commonly practiced today. Instead, we tell Jack to choose the other option allowed by the Torah, called chalitzah.

Chalitzah works as follows: If Jack chooses not to marry Miriam, the community is gathered to witness a ritual in which Miriam removes Jack's shoe and spits in his direction, all in the presence of a Rabbinical Court. This procedure effectively releases them from any bond or obligations of marriage. Click here for in-depth coverage of this topic.


We've been learning about the chalitzah in my Talmud class. One thing bothers me: It's a real humiliating ceremony—as the wording goes, "one who has refused to build his brother's house" etc. Sometimes a brother is required by law to perform chalitzah, rather than yibum. While I can sort of see the humiliation in the case of a brother who refuses to perform yibum, it doesn't seem to apply to the case of one who, either biblically or rabbinically, is not permitted to do so. Is there an explanation for this?


This question is especially bothersome today, when yibum isn't condoned in most Jewish communities—and hence isn't an option.

I recently reviewed these laws and was bothered by the same question. What I notice is that both parties are humiliated by the ceremony—she by having to untie his shoe and he by being spat at.

This got me thinking. When I learned the complicated rules for writing a bill of divorce (called a get), I had to learn through the standard guide to these laws, the Kav Naki, written by Rabbi Avraham Lavut (incidentally, the Rebbe's maternal great-grandfather). That work goes especially into great detail concerning the procedure for determining the correct names of the soon-to-be ex-spouses. In his preface, Rabbi Lavut warns not to take any of this lightly, since we are discussing separating two souls that have been united through kiddushin (Jewish marriage). Every nuance of these laws, he explains, is necessary to sever these two souls—whether we understand its usefulness or not.

Applying this to chalitzah, I wonder if we could use the following explanation:

Somehow, the machinations of the cosmos are such that these two souls have become attached to one another. The Torah reveals this to us and provides guidance: Either facilitate the union or dissolve it. But how can it be dissolved?

So it seems a crucial element in dissolving this union is by a kind of humiliation of each party. When a person is humiliated in public it is – according to our sages (Talmud Bava Metzia 58b) – as though he has been murdered. If so, these two people walking away from the ceremony quite alive are new and different people.

I recall a very traditional chalitzah ceremony I witnessed in my youth in an Iraqi community. It was done with much celebration and joy. It seems that if someone has to be humiliated, the Jewish community can always find a nice way to do it.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman for